Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.
Any casual reciter of Dua Samat knows that there is something different about this Dua. It is distinctive not only in its emphasis on Moses as the Prophet par excellence, but also in its adaptation of biblical terms and historical locations.
Two passages from the Dua suffice to demonstrate this:
وَأَسْأَلُكَ اللّهُمَّ بِمَجْدِكَ الَّذي كَلَّمْتَ بِهِ عَبْدَكَ وَرَسُولَكَ مُوسَىٰ بْنَ عِمْرانَ عَلَيْهِ السَّلامُ فِي الْمُقَدَّسينَ فَوْقَ إِحْساسِ الْكَرُّوبينَ
And I beseech You, O Allah, through Your Glory, with which You addressed Your Slave and Your Messenger, Moses son of Imran, peace be on him, in the Holy Assembly, which address even the Cherubim could not ever hear.
وَلِيَعْقُوبَ نَبِيّـِكَ عَلَيْهِ السَّلامُ في بَيْتِ إِيلٍ
And for Ya’qub your prophet, peace be on him, in Beth-El (i.e. where the Bible tells us he had seen the dream of the Ladder).
This is not surprising when you consider the background to the Dua.
The Dua is related from the Second Safir (i.e. Deputy of the Twelfth Imam) Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Uthman al-Amri after he was asked by one of the Shia1:
يا سيدي ما بالنا نرى كثيرا من الناس يصدقون شبور اليهود على من سرق منهم وهم ملعونون على لسان عيسى بن مريم ومحمد رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله؟
O my master, what is the matter with us that we see a lot of people believing in (i.e. using) the Shabbur of the Jews over the one who has stolen from them (i.e. against thieves), while they (the Jews) are accursed upon the tongue of Isa b. Maryam and Muhammad the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وآله?
فقال: لهذا علتان ظاهرة وباطنة، فأما الظاهرة فإنها أسماء الله ومدائحه إلا أنها عندهم مبتورة وعندنا صحيحة موفورة عن سادتنا أهل الذكر، نقلها لنا خلف عن سلف، حتى وصلت إلينا
He (Abu Ja’far) said: This (i.e. why a Jewish supplication works) has two reasons. An apparent one and a hidden one. As for the apparent one then it is because it (the Jewish supplication) contains the Names of Allah and His praise. Except that these (i.e. Names and praise) which are with them (i.e. the Jews) are broken (corrupted) , while with us (the Shia) they are accurate and intact, taken from our Masters the People of Dhikr(Remembrance), transmitted to us, each generation from the one that came before, until it reached us.
وأما الباطنة فانا روينا عن العالم عليه السلام أنه قال: إذا دعا المؤمن يقول الله عز وجل صوت أحب أن أسمعه اقضوا حاجته واجعلوها معلقة بين السماء والأرض حتى يكثر دعاؤه شوقا مني إليه، وإذا دعا الكافر يقول الله عز وجل: صوت أكره سماعه اقضوا حاجته وعجلوها له حتى لا أسمع صوته، ويشتغل بما طلبه عن خشوعه
As for the hidden reason then we have narrated from the A’lim (Scholar i.e. the Imam) who said: If a Believer supplicates – Allah Mighty and Majestic says: A voice that I love to hear. Fulfill his desire but make it (the actual implementation) suspended between the Heaven and the Earth so that he can increase in supplication because of My desire for it (to hear his pleading). However if a Disbeliever supplicates – Allah Mighty and Majestic says: A voice that I hate to hear. Fulfill his desire and hasten it to him so that I don’t have to hear his voice. And he (the disbeliever) becomes busy in (enjoying) what he has sought instead of his devotion.
قالوا: فنحن نحب أن تملي علينا دعاء السمات الذي هو للشبور حتى ندعو به على ظالمنا ومضطهدنا، والمخاتلين لنا والمتعززين علينا؟
They (the Shia gathered) said: We would like it if you could dictate for us the (authentic) supplication of Samat which is for the Shabbur, such that we can use it to supplicate against our oppressors, persecutors, those seeking to deceive us, and those who use their power over us?
قال: حدثني أبو عمر عثمان بن سعيد قال: حدثني محمد بن راشد قال: حدثني محمد بن سنان قال: حدثني المفضل بن عمر الجعفي
He (Abu Ja’far al-Amri) said: Narrated to me Abu Amr Uthman b. Sa’id – he said: Narrated to me Muhammad b. Rashid – he said: Narrated to me Muhammad b. Sinan – he said: Narrated to me al-Mufadhal b. Umar al-Ju’fi that:
أن خواصا من الشيعة سألوا عن هذه المسألة بعينها أبا عبد الله عليه السلام فأجابهم بمثل هذا الجواب
Some elite among the Shia asked this question to Abi Abdillah عليه السلام (i.e. why is this supplication of the Jews efficacious?) in identical terms (as you have asked), so he (al-Sadiq) replied to them with the same answer (I have given you).
قال: وقال أبو جعفر باقر علم الأنبياء لو يعلم الناس ما نعلمه من علم هذه المسائل وعظم شأنها عند الله وسرعة إجابة الله لصاحبها مع ما ادخر له من حسن الثواب، لاقتتلوا عليها بالسيوف، فان الله يختص برحمته من يشاء
He (al-Sadiq) said: Abu Ja’far the Baqir (Splitter) of the Knowledge of the Prophets said: If the people knew what we know – the knowledge of these supplications, and the greatness of their status in front of Allah, and the quickness of the response of Allah to the one who asks by them, together with what Allah has stored for him (the one who supplicates) of goodly reward, they would have killed each other with swords for it. But Allah singles out for His mercy whom He wishes.
ثم قال: أما إني لو حلفت لبررت أن الاسم الأعظم قد ذكر فيها فإذا دعوتم فاجتهدوا في الدعاء بالباقي، وارفضوا الفاني، فان ما عند الله خير و أبقى، الخبر بتمامه
Then He (al-Baqir) said: As for me – even if I were to swear that the Greatest Name has been mentioned in them then I would not have sinned (by lying)! So if you supplicate then make efforts to ask for the Permanent Abode, and avoid the Temporal. For that which is with Allah is better and ever-lasting […]
ثم قال: هذا هو من مكنون العلم ومخزون المسائل المجابة عند الله تعالى: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم اللهم إني أسألك باسمك العظيم الأعظم الأعظم الأعظم الأعز الأجل الأكرم الذي إذا دعيت به على مغالق أبواب السماء للفتح بالرحمة انفتحت
Then he said: This is one of the secrets of knowledge and treasured supplications which is promptly responded to by Allah the Exalted:
In the Name of Allah the Beneficent the Merciful. O Allah! I beseech You through Your Name, the Great, the Greater, the Greatest, the Most Greatest, the Most Majestic, the Most Magnificent, and the Most Noble. Which if You are requested therewith to open the closed doors of the Heavens these will open with Your mercy […]
The background to the Dua as given above shows the Second Safir endorsing a Jewish supplication albeit claiming to have the original text which he narrates from Muhammad b. Sinan from Mufadhal b. Umar (two big warning signs right there) from al-Sadiq from his father al-Baqir. In here lies an acknowledgement that the Dua is essentially a Jewish text being legitimized within Shi’i circles.
Samat or Shammata?
The realization of Jewish provenance can then help explain the etymology of the word Samat, which is of non-Arabic (foreign) origin. Though later scholars have tried to accommodate the word within the rules of Arabic inflection, suggesting it is Simat as a plural for Sima (lit. a sign), the popular pronunciation of the name among the Shia masses has always been Samat2. No traditional scholar could explain the meaning of the latter3.
It is only Moddarressi4, someone combining a traditional background with academic scholarship, who solved this riddle by first proposing that Samat is the Arabicization of the Hebrew Shammata. This last is a Jewish curse of excommunication which was pronounced against enemies. It was used to place a ban or anathema on someone.
We read in the tractate Mo’ed Katan of the Talmud5:
The Gemara proceeds with a discussion that explains the severity of the punishment of Shammata. What is the meaning of the word Shammata? Rav said: This word is a contraction of the expression ‘there is death’ (Sham – Mita), alluding to the deathly aspect of excommunication.
Shmuel said: It (the Shammata when pronounced) is effective upon him (the enemy) like fat smeared on an oven (i.e. it adheres to the one cursed like grease to the oven i.e. cannot be washed out). Just as some of the fat will always remain absorbed in the walls of the oven, so too some aspect of the curse contained in the excommunication will continue to adhere to him even after the excommunication has been nullified.
The Gemara continues discussing the power of the Shammata.
Rav Yosef said: Cast a Shammata on the tail of a dog and it, the Shammata, will do its work and harm the dog. It was related that there was a certain dog that would eat the shoes of the Sages, and they did not know who it was causing this damage. They thought that it was a person, and so they excommunicated whoever was doing it. Soon thereafter, the dog’s tail caught fire and got burnt. This shows that Shammata can have a harmful effect even on a dog!
Modarressi’s contribution takes us a step closer to understanding the Dua, but is not the final summation, for he is silent as to what Shabbur (sometimes mispronounced as Shobbur or Shubbur), another enigmatic word in the report, means.
It is my contention6 that this is an Arabicization of the Shofar, or ram-horn, which is used by Jews for a lot of their rituals, most prominently on Yomm Kippur, but is also connected to the pronouncement of the Shammata.
Continuing with Mo’ed Katan:
It was further related that there was a violent person who caused suffering to a certain Torah scholar. This Torah scholar came before Rav Yosef to ask what he should do. Rav Yosef said to him: Go and ostracize (i.e. pronounce Shammata against) him. This Torah scholar said to him: I am afraid of him, that he will harass me even more.
Rav Yosef said to him: Take out i.e. publish a written ostracism (Shammata) against him. The Torah scholar said to him: All the more so I am fearful of him, for if I publicize the matter he will certainly come after me. Rav Yosef said to him to do as follows: Take the written ostracism and place it in a jug, and set it down in a cemetery, where nobody is found, and sound a thousand, i.e., many, Shofar blasts over the course of forty days. That man went and did this. The jug burst and the violent man died.
The Gemara asks: What is the reason that Shofarot (pl. of Shofar) are sounded when a decree of ostracism (Shammata) is pronounced? The Shofarot allude to the fact that they extract punishment (Shenifra’in) from the excommunicated person.
The Gemara asks further: What is the reason that broken blasts are sounded on the Shofar when the excommunication (Shammata) is pronounced? Rav Yitzḥak, son of Rav Yehuda, said: It breaks tall buildings, i.e., a decree of ostracism (Shammata) can harm and break even the high and mighty, as it is taught in a baraita: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Wherever it says that the Sages set their eyes in anger upon a particular person, it causes either death or poverty.
Now we can understand what the Ashab were asking from the Safir when they asked him:
فنحن نحب أن تملي علينا دعاء السمات الذي هو للشبور
For we would like it if you could dictate for us the (authentic) supplication of Samat (give us the text of the curse), which is for the Shabbur (to be recited when the ram-horn is blown).
All praise belongs to Allah!
Conclusion: Is the Dua Authentic? Should we Recite it?
The earliest extant source for the Dua is the Misbah al-Mutahajjid of Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 460) where it is attributed to al-Amri (the Second Safir) without a chain.
The only chain for the Dua is given in Bihar al-Anwar by Allama Majlisi (d. 1111) who claims to have seen the Dua in the handwriting of the grandfather of Shaykh al-Bahai (1030). The chain itself consists of unknown individuals before terminating at Abu Ja’far al-Amri (d. 305). From al-Amri to the Imam al-Sadiq we have intermediaries like Muhammad b. Sinan and Mufadhal b. Umar, who were considered by the Ghulat to be their pillars, and a lot of fabricated material sourced back to them. Thus, the whole background of the Dua and the text itself cannot be proven to have been propagated by the chosen deputy of the Twelfth Imam.
What is more likely is that a fabricator took the core of a Jewish Shamatta text, reworked it by adding the mention of prophet Isa (Jesus), who would obviously not appear in a Jewish text, and also Prophet Muhammad and his family in a number of instances towards the end7.
The fabricator then invents a wholly fictitious dialogue with al-Amri to cover his tracks. Perhaps the Jewish origin could not be totally effaced and had to be explained away. He does this ingeniously by having a trustworthy figure like the Second Safir explain why the ‘Dua of the Jews’ could work and then proceed to declare that in any case the ‘Dua of the Jews’ is incomplete here’s the original – thank you very much.
I do not want to go into a long Fiqhi discussion of whether any Dua that is not established to be from the Imams should be recited. Suffice it to say that my personal opinion is that any Dua which does not contain un-Islamic doctrines can be recited. The Dua itself is admittedly very beautiful and full of praise of God. Thus there can be no harm. Allah knows best!
- Bihar al-Anwar: Vol. 87, Pg. 96.
- Which is of significance in so far as an oral tradition, in which ritual liturgy like this is preserved and handed down, is of equal importance as the written tradition.
- The Dua languished for thousands of years without anyone decoding its mysteries. It was recited but its terms not properly understood. This exposes the weakness of the insular nature of our traditional learning. It is a clarion call for scholars to widen their horizons, by studying other languages which are related to Arabic like Hebrew, and delving into the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which was in conversation with the Islamic tradition.
- Tradition and Survival: A Bibliographical Survey of Shi’ite Literature, Volume 1. Pg. 336.
- This quotation and the one below are taken from Mo’ed Katan: 17a–17b. Follow the link (https://www.sefaria.org/Moed_Katan.17a?lang=bi) for the online William Davidson Translation.
- I owe this identification to the late Lothar Kopf’s 1961 article, “The Treatment of Foreign Words in Mediaeval Arabic Lexicography” in Scripta Hierosolymitana 9, Pg. 194 (see footnote 30).
- No other significant modification appears to have been introduced. Even the name of Ishmael that naturally did not exist in the original Hebrew text, while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are repeatedly mentioned, is still missing from the text.